Kansas City, Part II: Wandering Downtown and the River Market
Following up on my first day in KC in Kansas City, Missouri, Part I: Voyage to the Heartland. Most of my day was spent wandering Downtown and the historic River Market area.
I woke up feeling hungover as all hell, and the other guy in the dorm was in the same boat. Both of us saw Noon come and go without flinching.
“What are you boys going to do, just sit there and blow dust?” Scout said as he came in, having already gone for a run. “Elsa! Come in here and tell these guys to quit being such wussies!”
Elsa, without missing a beat, rushed in, clapping her hands loudly. “Wake up, pussies!”
After a shower and making some coffee and food, I was feeling slightly more alive. I took my coffee to the back porch where Elsa and some other guests were relaxing on couches. A fan and a mister provided some relief from the Missouri summer heat and humidity.
“Good morning!” said Elsa. “You missed the wanker.”
I stared at her, groggy-eyed. “I know I misheard what you just said.”
“There was a wanker out front this morning,” she said, laughing. “Chasing some woman down the street and exposing himself. I had to distract him while I called the cops. They came and took him away, thank God.”
“That’s KC for you,” said the other guy who had been hungover in the room, whose name was Jason. “There were shots fired just a few blocks away last night.”
“Yes, it was terrible,” said Elsa. “But things like that don’t happen on this street. I know the cops and the firemen and my neighbors and we all have a good relationship. The wanker, I had never seen anything like that, in a year and a half of running this place.”
Jason was in his 30s, from Gainesville, Florida. He was relocating to Kansas City because of the low cost of living. He said he could find three-bedroom houses in fairly nice areas for $130,000, which was unthinkable where I was from. He needed more affordable housing for his girlfriend and their kid. I told him that I was looking to rent.
“It’s a great deal, but I wouldn’t buy or rent around here,” he said. “I was walking down to the liquor store yesterday and three dudes started following me. I knew they were following me. So when I came back out with a bag in my hand I turned around and talked to them. I said, ‘I know how it is. Do what you got to do.’ And they walked away after that, playing it off. But it could have been different.”
Another guy I met out back was Will Francis, a dude about my age, late twenties, who was from Dauphin, Alabama. He was here for orientation for Teach for America.
“There’s nothing where I’m from,” he said, meaning work opportunities. “And Teach for America is helping with my student loans. I have to teach at an under-served school, and it’s not like there’s a lack of those around here.”
Hearing their stories, I was curious to know what Elsa’s was. Unfortunately, at that time another guest came out to speak with her, and by that point I had already burned enough daylight. All I learned was that she had grown up in an orphanage in South Africa.
“My story is a long one. And a sad one. I would need more tissues,” she added with a laugh.
I got back into the Equinox and headed off. I had several places to hit up on my itinerary.
The oldest neighborhood in Kansas City, River Market lies just north of Downtown. Today a sought-after neighborhood, it includes a number of trendy shops, apartments, a museum, and several streetcar stops. It is also, fittingly, the site of a weekly farmer’s market that has been in operation since 1857.
Walking among the stalls is a fun experience in and of itself, even if you purchase nothing. I chose to grab some food for later, as well as some incense sticks for my sister. Chatting with the stall owner, she told me that Kansas City was very nice, very affordable, and that they prided themselves on being “honest, down home folks.”
Arabia Steamboat Museum
In that same plaza is the Arabia Steamboat Museum. I would come to notice that Kansas City had a lot for families to enjoy with children, and the museum is no different. Having said that, I thought it was really neat. The Arabia sank in the Missouri River back in 1856, along with about 200 tons of cargo. Arabia rested on the riverbed until a group of local business owners raised it in 1988. Opened in 1991, the Arabia Steamboat Museum is one of Kansas City’s most popular attractions, and claims to have the largest collection of pre-Civil War American artifacts in the world.
Anyone even remotely interested in history should definitely pay the museum a visit. If you’re like me and harbor some fascination for old school boats, then you’ll love browsing the piles and piles of provisions that were raised and preserved from the shipwreck.
The 2010s saw a streetcar building boom of Precambrian proportions across the US. Many large cities used to enjoy extensive streetcar service, until their tracks were torn out in the 1940s and ’50s, in favor of more highways. However, over the past decade, the importance of public transportation has been gaining traction in the political sphere. Cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, DC, and Atlanta all saw construction of brand new streetcar lines to facilitate transport and boost commerce.
Some systems were more successful than others. The Kansas City Streetcar is one of the success stories.
Opened in 2016, the KC Streetcar is completely free to ride. I can safely say that this route is pound for pound one of the most logically designed I’ve ever seen, connecting River Market, Downtown, the Power & Light Entertainment District, the Crossroads Art District, the World War I Museum, and Union Station across only 2.2 miles and 16 stations. It is compact, but extremely efficient.
It’s an absolute pleasure to ride. While most of the rest of the city does not score particularly high for walkability (many neighborhoods even lack sidewalks), the main urban/touristic corridor seemed very easy to navigate without a personal vehicle. The streetcar does exactly what a system of its kind should, and does it very well.
The day I took it, it was standing room only, but not super crowded. I took it for a whirl around the River Market loop, admiring the brick architecture and shady sidewalks, imagining myself living and possibly working there. Having completed the loop, the streetcar then turned south towards Downtown.
As I mentioned before, Kansas City has long-standing problems with crime, inequality, and racial segregation. It would also be somewhat unfair to say that certain steps have not been taken to address these issues. There is, after all, a reason that Kansas City has seen its population increase over the past decade, while St. Louis has continued to see people flee.
In the year 2000, Downtown was home to fewer than 10,000 people, and had a less-than-savory reputation. Many people I spoke with said that it wasn’t even the crime and the blight, but rather a lack of things to do.
Today, the resident population is well over twice that, and the area has seen intense investment, both commercially and for entertainment purposes. The multi-purpose Sprint Center opened in 2007, followed by the massive Power & Light District in 2008. In 2009 the historic Mainstreet Theater, originally opened in 1921, was repurposed as an Alamo Drafthouse movie theater.
The Power & Light District is one of the largest entertainment districts in the Midwest, and features restaurants, bars, and a stage for live performances. Sports games are also presented on the massive screens. As some people at the Westport bars had told me the previous night, the place caters somewhat to the rowdy college crowd (which my half-remembered experience from college would bear out), but is at any rate a very fun place to go.
Another point of interest downtown would be the main branch of the Kansas City Public Library, which features a rooftop lounge and life-size chess board.
The Kansas Side
The Kansas City metropolitan area is geographically large, and spread across both the states of Missouri and Kansas. The largest suburb, home to almost 200,000 people and the telecom giant Sprint, is Overland Park, KS.
I drove over the border to meet Maggie, a friend of mine from elementary school. She had been living there for years, and was the third person that day to tell me that the Kansas City metropolitan area was a great place to live. Although, she added, the Kansas suburbs tended to run far more conservative than the urban core over in Missouri.
The place where she met me was a barbecue restaurant called Q39. Specifically, this was Q39 South, as their original location was in Westport.
I hadn’t seen Maggie in well over a decade, but we caught up as if no time had passed at all. We carried on our conversation surrounded by a diverse group of diners, including a young Amish (or perhaps Mennonite?) couple.
Being from Austin, I love barbecue. Austin is consistently ranked as one of the two best barbecue cities in all of the United States; the other is almost always Kansas City. For that reason, I was very eager to try the Kansas City-style meat, and I was not disappointed.
Kansas City-style barbecue is known for having sweet barbecue sauce, as opposed to Texas barbecue which many times will eschew sauce altogether. The characteristic cuts of KC BBQ are the “burnt ends,” the slightly charred end points of the brisket. These are typically separated during the brisket cooking process, and then cooked further. They can either be served as they are with sauce on the side, or cubed and covered in sauce as part of a sandwich.
Here at Q39 I ordered the burnt ends as they were, with some of Q39’s signature sauce, and a side of beans.
Now I’ve eaten barbecue in a lot of places. Cousin’s BBQ in Ft. Worth, Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis, Memphis-style, and most of the places in Austin. I do not claim to be an expert, and I’ve never smoked a slab of brisket myself, but I know good barbecue when I eat it.
Q39 has the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.
That’s a tall claim, I know. Maybe it was mostly the sauce, I don’t know, but that plate of barbecue was delicious. Being that Q39 is more refined sit-down establishment, where the food is served on plates instead of trays lined with butcher paper, I had my doubts. But make no mistake, this is barbecue at its finest. The meat was tender and the sauce was sweet. It was everything I could have asked for.
So good, in fact, that when I was ready to leave KC, I stopped at their original location in Westport and bought three bottles of their sauce to take home with me.
Sylas & Maddy’s Homemade Ice Cream
After catching up at Q39, Maggie took me to Sylas & Maddy’s, a popular local ice cream place. Technically in the town of Olathe, KS (pronounced O-lay-thuh), it was only a short drive away. They were extremely good and refreshing on this warm night, and have plenty of outdoor seating. Their menu of flavors is constantly rotating, but I would recommend the Gold Dust, if they have it.
It had been a long day of walking and sightseeing, and after several hours of talking with Maggie, we said goodbye and I headed back to the hostel. It was time to turn in for the night, and make the most of a new day.